As the final bolt locked the circular metal door into place at the end of the nearly mile-long steel tube, the two dozen members of the WARR Hyperloop team, from the Technical University of Munich, jostled to find shade under a canopy. The students spent the next 20 minutes waiting anxiously as pumps sucked nearly all the air from the tube. They were the third and final team to get a run in the last stage of Elon Musk’s hyperloop competition. The only criterion for winning? Speed.
When many people hear the word hyperloop, they think it’s some sort of fixed product that Musk proposed five years ago. Rather, it’s more a genre of transportation than a single invention. The basic concept calls for a passenger- or cargo-packed pod inside a nearly airless tube, zooming at high speeds thanks to minimal friction and air resistance. The details—whether and how to make the pod levitate, how to propel it, what shape it should be, and so on—are anyone’s guess. Musk laid out some particulars in a 2013, but the people trying to bring this concept to life treat the white paper he wrote that lay out these ideas as a starting point, not gospel.
That drive to create and innovate is what brought 700 members of 25 teams from around the world to the SpaceX headquarters Sunday for the second annual SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition. To add to the tension, Musk stood among the students, next to the tube that his own aerospace company, SpaceX, built along the edge of its rocket factory in Hawthorne, near Los Angeles. He peered over the students’ shoulders at a laptop screen as they ran through last-minute checks, seeming to enjoy getting involved.
Finally, with a loud countdown from three to two to one, all eyes turned to the big screen that relayed a camera view from inside the glossy white tube. (Hyperloop racing is not much of a spectator sport.) The speed display ticked up, and up, and up, lights flickering past as the pod sped down the tube, before hitting the brakes to avoid hitting the far end of the sealed tube.
“That was an amazing job,” Musk shouted over the cheers that erupted from the bleachers, packed with other students who didn’t get a chance to race, but still proudly exhibited their pod designs. “Two hundred miles an hour for a student-built pod is incredible.”
That 20-second run clinched the top prize for WARR, beating out Paradigm Hyperloop’s 63 miles-per-hour, and Swissloop’s 25 miles-per-hour, also impressive achievements from teams who built a novel form of transport from scratch. True to form, Musk immediately asked for more. “I think it’s only going to go up from there with each successive competition,” he said, setting a goal of 370 miles-per-hour. He upped the ante in a later tweet.
The question, of course, is how to reach the near-supersonic speeds that would make hyperloop a compelling alternative to established modes of travel, to deliver on Musk’s promise of a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour. Every team at the Space Hyperloop Pod Competition is potentially a key part of that effort, and the various private companies working on hyperloop each believe in their own solution. They’re all channeling classic Elon Musk: Ignore the way it’s always been done before, and figure out something better.
The WARR team trounced its rivals with a small, sleek pod that clamps onto the metal rail that runs along the floor of the tunnel. They used a rubber wheel and a 75-horsepower electric motor to drive up to speed. The pod has especially powerful brakes, so the team can program it to decelerate later. “That means we have more time for acceleration,” says team member Anna Branz.
Paradigm Hyperloop’s 20-foot-long pod was the only finalist to rely on air bearings, using onboard air tanks to create a cushion of air for its pod to float on—think of an upside-down air hockey table. (This was the solution that Musk first proposed in 2013.) “It cuts the coefficient of friction, so we can move faster with less effort,” says Luke Merkl, one of the students from Northeastern University and Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada.
Swissloop, from technical university ETH Zurich, decided on jet power: Its pod carries a tank of compressed air, which it releases through nozzles at the back, into the vacuum of the tube, to jet forwards, the way a satellite maneuvers in space. The students got a taste of working for Musk when their pod temporarily stopped communicating once sealed in the tube. “You don’t just lose connectivity—how do we get it back?” said Musk, and jokingly, “Guys, this is getting awkward now.”
WARR Hyperloop’s pod didn’t just win the competition, it topped the 192-mph mark set by Hyperloop One with its full-sized pod in its own test tube in the Nevada desert earlier this month. That design, which the company is hoping to commercialize one day, uses magnetic levitation, like a bullet train.
Now, as Musk digs into tunnels with his mysterious Boring Company, he’s showing new interest in building his own hyperloop. He’s planning on satisfying his inner engineer later this week, running tests using the pusher cart that SpaceX built to shove some student pods up to speed. Space X’s pusher cart has four wheels with rubber tires, so it’s more like a stripped down electric car than a levitating pod, but it will probably hit good speed numbers, even if it doesn’t conform to his original vision.
As the hyperloop moves closer to practical applications, a range of different technologies will likely emerge, each suited to different uses, just as there are trains with different engines and carriage designs. Some will be better for long distance, others for a short but very fast trip from a city center to the airport. Some may emphasize comfort or safety or the use of renewable energy.
Even if none of the ideas shown at the competition ever make it to a commercial system that shoots people between cities, for the students it’s a chance to work on something truly far out—and to hit Musk up for a job. For the man himself, it’s yet another chance to make a difference. “What this is really all about is advancing the state of transportation, trying things that have never been done before,” he said Sunday. “If we don’t have things that inspire us, what’s the point of living?”
Judging by the burst of cheers, the student teams watching him speak agreed. And they’ll try just about anything to make it reality.